Few human beings get famous and even fewer stay that way. Fame usually drains away after someone dies and many people who filled newspapers or TV screens in the past are almost forgotten today. Charles Dickens is one of the exceptions. He was born in 1812 and died in 1870, mourned around the world as one of England’s greatest writers.
Well over a century later, he’s still a household name, known and discussed far beyond literary circles and social historians. Characters he invented to entertain and educate a very different society – Oliver Twist, Fagin, Scrooge, Tiny Tim – are still instantly recognizable to countless millions of people, English-speaking and otherwise. Like Shakespeare, he appeals not just to the British and the countries they founded, but to the entire world.
And in some ways, like Shakespeare, he may be better understood outside his homeland than within it. Victorian Britain was a very different place. The London of Dickens’ day was a much crueller, poorer and dirtier city. Men had much more power over women, adults over children, employers over their workers. And disease had much more power too. It struck more frequently and carried off many more people before their time.
Those kind of social and medical conditions still exist in many parts of the world. In the West, we experience Dickens as a voice from the past. In India or Brazil or Nigeria, he can seem like a commentator on the present. Readers from those countries will be much more familiar with one of Dickens’ most frequent themes: early death. Oliver Twist was an orphan whose mother died as she gave birth to him. In A Christmas Carol, the cold-hearted miser Scrooge is given a glimpse of a possible future in which Tiny Tim, the crippled son of his over-worked and under-paid employee Bob Cratchit, never makes it to manhood.
The vision softens Scrooge’s heart and he does everything he can to prevent it coming true. It doesn’t: Scrooge stops loving money and starts loving people instead. That was the message Dickens wanted to give the world, because his familiarity with early death and casual cruelty did not make him indifferent to them. He wrote not simply to entertain, but also to enlighten and expand the minds of his readers. He wanted them to have sympathy with the sufferings of the poor and oppressed.
And he succeeded. If modern Britain is so different to Victorian Britain, that is partly because Dickens so effectively portrayed the evils of his day and changed the attitudes of the powerful. It was inevitable that he would be accused of sentimentality. Oscar Wilde said that it would take a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. She was the beautiful and kind-hearted orphan in The Old Curiosity Shop, where she is pursued by a cunning and malevolent dwarf called Quilp.
The villains created by Dickens are as memorable as his heroes and heroines. Their deaths are memorable too, because Dickens knew how powerful the end of life is as a psychological event and a literary symbol. His good characters died to rouse his readers’ pity and sympathy. His villains died to confirm their sense of justice and destiny. Those themes are still full of power and meaning, still attracting new readers to Dickens and bringing his old readers back. If we can be thankful that children lead much healthier and happier lives today, then Dickens is one of those whom we should thank.